How to improve gender equality in your business

9th March, 2017

So you’ve seen the light and realised that you really need to step up your game on gender equality in your business – but how do you create change?

Gender equality is something that has rightly been a focus in business for a number of years now.

Not only is creating a more diverse and welcoming environment the straight-up right thing to do, but a mountain of research has found that diversity in the workplace has a positive effect on decision-making.

Unique perspectives and modes of thinking lead to smarter decisions and better outcomes than group-think.

As we’ve seen in recent times, organisations without a proactive approach to gender equality risk being left behind and even negative PR outcomes.

So how do make sure your business becomes relevant if you have identified you have a gender equality issue?

Just simply hiring more women isn’t the answer, as simple as that may seem, as if the culture hasn’t changed then they’ll simply end up leaving (and telling others about their experience too).

Sadly, there are no easy answers here and a raft of organisations are trying to figure out how to drive cultural change to increase diversity – but it’s not easy.

It can start with training, but it’s only the first step.

Unconscious bias training is one small step

Unconscious bias is a phenomenon described loosely as an unconscious assumption that we all have groups of people that we favour over others.

It has roots in biological ‘friend or foe’ hardwiring, and it’s basically our mind identifying ‘other’ as a potential threat.

In the modern context, this plays out on an unconscious level – we don’t actually know we’re doing it.

Luckily we can overcome this phenomenon, but it’s a process of change rather than something you can fix with a bout of training.

A lot of organisations can fall into the trap that everything will be fixed with a bout of unconscious bias training and every single employee will have a ‘light bulb moment’ after it – but it’s more complicated than that.

It starts with communicating that you have an issue, and why you need to increase diversity.

Ongoing communication

Start by getting your team together and communicating that you have a problem.

Most people are going to be unwilling to change if they don’t see that there is a problem which needs resolving.

More importantly, communicate to them about why you want to change your company’s culture to be more inclusive.

Also make clear that this isn’t about accommodating women and the different thinking they bring to an organisation, but rather welcoming it.

Frame it as a potential competitive advantage.

From this point you can do things like make sure unconscious bias training is taken, but it’s about fostering a culture of two-way communication.

If your employee is simply repeating what they learned in unconscious bias training, then they’ve more than likely taken the words on board but not actually engaged with the ideas presented.

It’s important to let employees know that it’s OK to talk openly about their personal challenges with tackling unconscious bias – that they won’t be looked down upon for doing so.

Only with open and honest communication can you start to tackle some of the real problems.

It can take teams 12 months to get to this point, so you must have tools and techniques in place to support the team and individuals until they get to this more open and safe place as a group.

Getting flexible

Now you’re starting to have a real conversation about driving cultural change and why it needs to be done, then you can start to put specific policies in place to make life easier for women.

A lack of flexibility in working arrangements is often brought up as a chief pain point for women in the workplace.

While flexibility is an issue which cuts across both male and female employees, at this stage women are more likely to juggle home life and working life.

Flexibility means different things to different people – for some it is the hours they work, for some it is the days they work, for some it’s both.

Talking to your employees about what sort of flexibility they’d like and then seeing if you can make it work is a good approach to take here.

You also need to be flexible in approaching gender diversity.

No matter which way you go, there’s no set roadmap for increasing gender diversity in your organisation – which often makes it difficult to talk about and put into action on an organisational level.

There’s no simple checklist here.

There are, however, a few principles you can keep in mind when figuring out how to make your workplace a more inclusive place.

  • Identify that you have a gender disparity
  • Figure out why you want to encourage more women into your workplace
  • Offer your existing staff training and encourage them to use what the learned
  • Keep the conversation going
  • Identify reasons women may feel they are not supported and why they can’t contribute equally in the workplace, and try to fix them